US Court Blocks Book-Banning Elements of Iowa Law

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Penguin Random House’s Dan Novack says plaintiffs are ‘extremely gratified’ by a US district court’s injunction on Iowa’s ‘SF 496’ law.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Matteo Lavazza Seranto

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Law Would Have Gone Into Effect January 1
Issued late Friday (December 29) during our winter publication break, the grant of a preliminary injunction by US District Court Judge Stephen Locher has cheered freedom-to-read and freedom-to-publish advocates.

It’s a major break in a closely watched lawsuit for its plaintiffs: Penguin Random House; the Iowa State Education Association; authors Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Malinda Lo, and Jodi Picoult; and an Iowa high school student. In American legal terminology, an injunction in a case of this kind blocks implementation of an action, in this case a law.

“All viewpoints and perspectives must be made equitably available to readers. Penguin Random House will continue to stand up for the First Amendment, our authors, their stories and ideas, and the students and educators who have the right to access and discuss books without government interference.”Dan Novack, Penguin Random House

At issue is Iowa’s law Senate File 496, signed into law on May 26 by Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, and generally referred to as “SF 496.” It was set to take effect on Monday (January 1). Judge Locher’s action has prevented the law from taking effect while legal challenges work their way through the judicial system.

You may recall that PRH announced its first direct lawsuit of a state with a news conference on November 30. This is the first time Penguin Random House has directly sued one of the 50 American states. The news arrives at a point of quickly rising political intensity in the midwestern state of Iowa, where the Republican Party will hold its first United States presidential primary on January 15, the party choosing its presidential candidate for the potentially pivotal November 5 general election.

Describing “SF 496” in Iowa’s leading newspaper, reporters Katie Akin and Bill Steiden at the Des Moines Register wrote on Friday, “Approved in the 2023 Iowa legislative session, Senate File 496 bans school books with descriptions or depictions of sex acts as outlined in state law; prohibits instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation before seventh grade; requires schools to notify parents if a student requests to use new pronouns; and enshrines the ‘constitutionally protected right’ for parents to make decisions for their children.”

As it happens, the effort by Penguin Random House and co-plaintiffs was one of two injunction requests before Locher. The other was filed by an organization called GLBT Youth in Iowa Task Force. And, as Akin and Steiden clarify at the Register, the district court’s injunction does not block the element of the law which requires a school system to alert parents of a student’s interest in changing his or her name or pronouns. Part of Locher’s injunction decision-making went into effect on December 22.

Commentary From State Officials and PRH

The state governor, Reynolds [R], issued a statement on Locher’s grant of an injunction, saying, “I’m extremely disappointed in today’s ruling. Instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation has no place in kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms.

Kim Reynolds

“And there should be no question that books containing sexually explicit content — as clearly defined in Iowa law — do not belong in a school library for children.

“The fact that we’re even arguing these issues is ridiculous. The real debate should be about why society is so intent on over-sexualizing our young children. It’s wrong, and I will continue to do my part to protect their innocence.”

Brenna Bird

And Iowa’s state attorney general, Brenna Bird, also released a statement in which she says, “I am deeply disappointed in the district court’s decision today. Sexually explicit books do not belong in our elementary-school libraries or classrooms.

“Not only is it common sense, it’s the law. As attorney general, I will keep on fighting to protect families, enforce the law, and keep inappropriate books out of the hands of children in school.”

Dan Novack

For Penguin Random House, vice-president and associate general counsel Dan Novack, says, “We are extremely gratified by Judge Locher’s order barring enforcement of Iowa’s law that mandates the removal of books from school and classroom libraries.

“Our position remains that all viewpoints and perspectives must be made equitably available to readers, and Judge Locher has validated the importance of that with his ruling today.

“Penguin Random House will continue to stand up for the First Amendment, our authors, their stories and ideas, and the students and educators who have the right to access and discuss books without government interference.”

A leading publishing-house voice against the book bannings and other forms of censorship wracking parts of the United States, PRH—as Publishing Perspectives readers know—rolled a bookmobile dubbed #TheBannedWagon, through several states in the American South during Banned Books Week, handing out free copies of some of its books that have been targeted by far-right censorship activists. That followed the company’s release in August of its “banned books resources site, titled Let Kids Read.

Media messaging from the publishing house indicates that “SF 496” already has led to libraries removing books including:

  • Beloved and Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  • Forever by Judy Blume
  • Push: A Novel by Sapphire
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Native Son by Richard Wright

An Associated Press report from Friday noted that Locher referred to the ban on books as being “incredibly broad, resulting in “the removal of history volumes, classics, award-winning novels and ‘even books designed to help students avoid being victimized by sexual assault.'”

More from Publishing Perspectives on book bannings is here, more on censorship in the broader context is here, and more on the freedom to publish and freedom of expression is here. More on Penguin Random House is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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